Shanbehzadeh, Rajoub Bridge Cultural Gaps at Asia Society Concert
The musicians who played at New York City’s Asia Society on Dec. 7 offered visual contrasts but a united musical performance.
A barefoot man in a wraparound skirt clutched bagpipes shaped like a sheep’s torso between his arm and rib cage, squeezing out long notes with harsh overtones. A tenor saxophonist wearing a dark suit blew brief repeating motifs, subtly changing his attack and adding microtonal embellishments. A young percussionist sat astride two of the three Persian goblet drums positioned on their sides, finger-tapping and palming an onrush of exacting, accented rhythm patterns.
All three men listened raptly to each other, deeply communicating and improvising spontaneously. For this concert, titled “Sound: The Encounter/New Music from Iran and Syria,” several musical traditions were referenced, with jazz strategies as an underpinning that brought them together.
Saeid Shanbehzadeh, a charismatic bagpiper/winds player/vocalist/dancer from southwestern Iran, was nominal leader of this trio by virtue of his seniority and intense energy. Basel Rajoub, born in Aleppo, Syria, and a graduate of the Damascus High Institute of Music, was the cooler, fluid tenor saxophonist, who for one selection exchanged his horn for a duclar—a wooden cylindrical instrument fitted with a clarinet mouthpiece—to get the supple sound of the Armenian dudek from a single reed instead of its characteristic double-reed setup.
Naghib Shanbehzadeh, Saeid’s son, seated on a rug between Rajoub and his father, maintained steady yet variously inflected propulsion that connected the two front men. At the end of the concert, virtuosic Syrian oud player Kenan Adnawi joined the ensemble for a concluding improvisation.
There were no fixed song forms, chord progressions or attempts at Western harmonies. The music was modal, and derived more from rough folk practices than exacting classical systems such as the rule-bound Middle Eastern makam. Timbral contrasts and careful attention to dynamics were important, as each of nine separate pieces ended with all involved players agreeing, instantaneously, that they’d attained satisfying resolution. The program, chock-full of dignified, soulful beauty, conjured images of wide-open spaces, hushed nights under dark skies.
Each of the four musicians was featured in a solo, unaccompanied episode, and there was a roundelay of duets. Saeid Shanbehzadeh’s mastery of the indigenous Iranian bagpipe (neyanbân), equipped with two chanters for fingering (rather than one) plus a drone, was astonishing. In one extended passage, he summoned up a polyphonic storm, as if three distinct winds had arrived from different quarters to howl together. He used circular breathing when soloing on the neydjofti, a single-reed instrument with two identical pipes that he fingered simultaneously. In his hands, sounds and techniques often associated with the avant-garde were connected to roots in an artistic heritage that Shanbehzadeh personally claims to trace back to Zanzibar, in East Africa.
In ancient times, there was purportedly a shared musical culture across the vast, mostly arid region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf. However, in the decades following World War I, cross-cultural communications between these diverse communities suffered. Current political strife involving Iraq, Syria and Iran and other countries in the region has also hindered cultural sharing.
At the Asia Society's 400-seat theater, the audience—made up of transplanted Middle Easterners, world music connoisseurs and journalists —eagerly anticipated an onstage collaboration that has little contemporary precedent.
Rajoub, who now lives in Switzerland, first met Shanbehzadeh at a Shanghai music festival in 2011. Though they had no language in common, the two recognized age-old affinities in their repertoires, and a year later, after running into each other by chance on a street in Paris, found an opportunity to jam. The Aga Khan Music Initiative, which works to reassemble and reinvigorate what it identifies as historically interwoven cultures from across Muslim nations, facilitated their further meetings, and joined the Asia Society as co-presenter of “Sound: The Encounter.” (Following their New York debut, the performers appeared at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer-Sackler galleries in Washington D.C. and the Asia Society in Houston.)
Overall, the music was both exotic and unexpectedly familiar, due to fundamental tactics including call-and-response, interaction based on close listening and melodic extensions of riff-like phrases. Shanbehzadeh was particularly expressive, whether playing a unique instrument like the boogh horn-trumpet, dancing sinuously or uttering a lyric in Farsi that seemed to be a stern assertion, or perhaps an indictment.
Even listeners lacking deep knowledge of Middle Eastern history understood that culture chasms had been bridged, with distinctions between folkloric tradition and modern sophistication rendered moot. Inventions of the moment were visited upon timeless tropes, and an experiment in collaboration succeeded in recasting some ancient customs into something spellbinding, transcendent and new.